The stakes are high when it comes to identifying the one to whom we should pray, and we can discover who by answering an apparently simple question: Can we expect prayers to be heard no matter who we address them to?
What makes communication between man and God possible is His initiative to communicate Himself through actions and words at a level that is accessible to human knowledge. In this case, we can say that God reveals Himself through the gift of prayer, and man is at the receiving end, and expected to react. Thus, prayer becomes an answer, and the roles of sender-receiver are reversed.
But if the petitioner is man, who is at the other end of the line?
We would expect man to communicate with the One who initiated and made dialogue possible. Let us briefly consider who the different characters in the Bible addressed when they prayed.
At the end of the line—man and God
From Adam’s time to the time of the patriarchs, communication was not exclusively one-way, but often had the quality of a dialogue with God (Abraham), a friendship, or a walk with Him (Enoch, Noah). Sometimes people do not know they are speaking with God—for instance, in the theophany at Mamre (Genesis 18) where, although God presents Himself as a man while in dialogue with Abraham, the Bible tells us that He was Yahweh Himself (v. 22).
In the theocratic period of the Old Testament—from Moses to the judges—prayer would more often take the form of a confession (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), a request for forgiveness before God, at the priest’s recommendation (Ezra 10:10-11). This was followed by a sacrifice for sin. Confession was made to the Lord, the only one who can forgive what was done against Him (Numbers 21:7), as well as to the injured party, along with a compensatory payment (Numbers 5:7). It is true that when the sinner brought the sacrifice to the tabernacle, he had to inform the priest of the type of sacrifice for which he had come, but the gesture of laying his hands on the sacrifice shows that the nature of the confessed sin remained between the petitioner and God.
Old Testament prophets had a dialogue with God — their prayer was addressed exclusively to Him (Jeremiah 11:20; Daniel 9:3-4).
During the Kingdom of Israel, and during the exile, prayer sometimes took the form of psalms of praise, or supplication addressed to God. Thus confession and praise became part of worship, as direct dialogue with God.
In the New Testament, Jesus Himself asks the hearers to pray to the Father (Matthew 6:7-9; 7:11) in the Name of the Son, through the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27); the same is required of the early church. The apostles pray in this way too; the apostle Paul himself prays and thanks God for solving his problems (2 Corinthians 12: 8-9). God is repeatedly named as the One to turn to for wisdom (James 1:5-8) and everything else (Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6), as He has the attributes necessary to accomplish what man is unable to accomplish (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Some New Testament prayers were directed to the Son (Acts 7:59-60). The name of Christ Jesus can be called upon and praised (John 5:22-23), which is understandable given that the Son claims to be identical to the Father, in both nature and purpose (John 14:9). He is presented as the One who has the power to forgive confessed sin (1 John 1:7-9).
Realising you’re talking to yourself
Man’s urgent need to receive a clear answer or guidance has often brought him to seek fulfilment in ways other than those expressly provided by God. One of these variants, most common in biblical times, was the use of idols, or false gods, for protection or guidance, which God disapproved of.
There were four broad categories of such unsolicited appeals: 1) before a stone adorned with faces (Leviticus 26:1); 2) in front of a pillar dedicated to the sun (Leviticus 26:30); 3) to stone idols or cast icons (Numbers 33:52); 4) before the appearance of any man (Deuteronomy 4:16).
The logic of disapproving of directing worship and prayer to something created in the place of the Creator is that such an act not only humiliates God (Isaiah 42:8) (the Creator being superior to and distinct from creation, and unique), but it is also a useless approach, as inanimate matter is unable to react to fervent requests.
Does it matter who you turn to? When someone else interrupts conversation
The fascination with exploring the divine will has made man sometimes turn to animated sources, in addition to inanimate ones. God considers it inappropriate for man to consult alternative sources: 1) fortune tellers, astrologists, those practicing divination, wizards, enchanters; 2) dead people or spirits, cases in which the question of the prophet Isaiah becomes rhetorical: “Should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19).
The story of King Saul, to whom God does not respond by legitimate means of revelation (dreams, Urim, prophets—1 Samuel 28:6,15), and who appeals to a spiritual environment, is relevant. Since God turned away from him (v. 15-16) and no longer answered him (v. 6), and if the dead, including the patriarchs or the prophets, are in a state of unconsciousness, we might well ask who Saul was in fact talking to. The answer takes us to an area that every Christian wants to avoid.
The Bible also indicates God’s disapproval of any attempts to approach angelic beings for prayer or worship, or man as the recipient of prayer. These can only be inappropriate.
The fight for exclusivity: the metaphor of “jealousy”
To illustrate the divine desire for exclusivity in communication with man, the Bible uses the metaphor of “jealousy”. This anthropomorphic language tries to accustom the human mind to the idea of exclusivity indicated in the Bible—man must only pray to God. For the same purpose, the Bible uses the analogy of the exclusivity desired by man in marriage, of mutual loyalty, in which love is the ultimate motivation.
Thus, this exclusive nature of the Recipient that man must turn to becomes an ordering factor in the economy of prayer: if God is unique and not simply first in a pantheon of gods, and if, as he claims, there is no Saviour apart from Himself,, appealing to Him would not only need to be a priority, but an exclusive behaviour.